1. ON MEDITATING AND REALIZING THE ILLUSION OF THE SEPARATE SELF
I’ve recently discovered the work of UK non-dualist Rupert Spira, and I like the way he explains things. Here’s part of a transcript of his video in which he summarizes why traditional approaches to meditation generally aren’t helpful in realizing the illusion that we have a separate self:
We normally consider that meditation is some kind of an activity of the mind. It’s a focusing of the mind, usually on a mantra or a flame or on the breath or just on the current situation. In other words meditation is normally conceived as an activity. What we understand here by meditation is something very different from that. Meditation is not an activity that is undertaken by a mind. Meditation here we understand as simply being in the presence of awareness…
Because thought cannot see awareness — thought is like the script for a character in a movie. Wherever the character looks it cannot see the movie screen … So thought can’t find awareness because it’s transparent, it’s empty, it’s “object-less” and so thought imagines instead that we are a cluster of thoughts, feelings, sensations and perceptions; in other words a ‘body-mind’. And with that imagination an illusory self, an imaginary self, made up of thoughts and feelings comes into an apparent existence. Thought imagines the separate self. We then feel “I am this separate self; I am this body and this mind which is aware.”
And then we notice that we are unhappy and we are seeking happiness in all the conventional objects, and then when all the conventional objects have failed us sufficiently we start looking to less conventional objects, and we hear about something called meditation and we approach meditation in exactly the same way that we approached the objects that we used to go for, the substances, the activities, the relationships, whatever it was. We think “OK I’m going to do this new kind of seeking now, something called meditation, and achieve subtle states of mind which will finally give me the happiness that I was previously seeking in objects.”
So then “I” the separate self starts on this activity of the mind called meditation and it starts quieting or focusing the mind, and this brings about some temporary relief… but not what we truly want, which is lasting peace, undisturbable peace, peace that is not dependent on the condition of the mind or the body or the world.
So what we consider meditation here is quite different from that, from that focusing or disciplining the mind. Meditation here is what we are. Meditation is just to be knowingly in the presence of awareness. In other words just to be — that is the highest meditation, just to be as you are. To meditate means just to be that, knowingly.
If we’ve been used to doing an activity of the mind called meditation there may be a little rebellion in the mind when we sit here without giving it something to do. The mind may feel redundant, and with good reason… so it’ll get agitated, it will try to to grab your attention again: “You should be doing this” or “This is not enough” or “This is not the real thing” and it’ll provide all kinds of excuses why you should get involved with it again. And … you might find yourself lost in the mind. And whenever you find yourself lost in the mind, just notice.
Consider the mind like a train that enters the station… Just step off the train, don’t get involved with the train, let the train go wherever it’s going, let your thoughts do whatever they’ve been conditioned to do — they’re going to do that anyway… You don’t even have to step off: you’re more like the platform than the passenger. You are that through which the train [the mind full of thoughts and reactive emotions] is flowing. It doesn’t matter where it’s going, doesn’t matter where your thoughts are going, what they’re doing. They’re always doing one of two things: going into the past or into the future. Just let them go, let them make the journey, but never take the journey with them. That is meditation. Just to know yourself as this ever-present imperturbable light of awareness. That’s it. Just abide as that.
So the mind, and the self, are just thoughts, inventions. Why did they evolve? Because, thanks to the mutation of our large brains, they could, and nature loves to experiment and ‘reward’ successful mutations. Humans who evolved the sense of the separate, responsible self out-competed (and some say exterminated) humans who did not.
Although this sense is an illusion, it is like a video screen that depicts a simplified reality apart from the ‘viewer’, with useful information on the side, and it’s very helpful for ‘navigating’ the world. The ‘ego problem’ arose when humans started to spend so much time ‘inside their minds’ that they started to believe that what they saw through this ‘screen’ was reality, and lost the capacity to see the world, and themselves, as they really are.
The real world, it would seem, is a staggeringly complex emergence of processes, and what we perceive as ‘things’, animate and inanimate, are like snapshots of those processes. One of the processes is what we have come to call consciousness or awareness. There is no ‘separate’ consciousness — that’s just another illusion conjured up by the mind to ‘make sense’ of an unfathomably complex reality. Awareness is able (thanks to evolution) to ‘attach’ itself to organisms (a bit like a driver driving a car) so that that organism then becomes an expression of part of this awareness and can act as if it were itself independently aware.
2. ON TIME, DREAMING AND DEATH
While this much makes sense to me intellectually, non-dualists go further and argue that time, like the self, is just an illusion, a construct, and that there is only the Now. Awareness, consciousness, connection, and Now are, they say, different terms for the same reality. I’ve always found this more difficult to get my head around, and Rupert Spira has tackled this challenge in this video.
What he says is that as the mind processes sensations, it looks for patterns and evolves ideas and models and beliefs to ‘explain’ them, and then stores them in memory for future practical reuse. The problem is that, since there is only Now, the mind is forced to invent the idea of time in order to organize and store information — otherwise it would all have to be stacked and indexed uselessly under ‘Now’.
Once that invention evolved, it became convenient (and evolutionarily successful) to perceive ourselves as ‘moving through time’ in a linear way. But there is no past or future — nothing happened in the past (when it happened, it was the present moment, and when we remember something, we remember it only in the present moment), and nothing will happen in the future (when it happens, it will be the present moment, and we can imagine it only in the present moment). “Time is what eternity looks like when viewed by the mind.”
If you don’t find the paragraph above sensible or credible, watch the video — he explains it much more articulately than I can.
He then talks about what happens when we sleep. The reason no time seems to elapse while we are asleep is that our mind is not present to imagine time elapsing. Likewise, we can’t recall our dreams with the same richness with which we experience them because our mind wasn’t there to ‘memorize’ them. So the moment we drop into sleep and the moment we awaken are actually the same moment, the only moment — Now. That, Rupert argues, is why we’re intuitively unafraid to ‘lose consciousness’ in sleep — consciousness is always there, it’s just the functioning of the mind that’s absent.
Going a step further, he says that what is true of our night’s sleep is true for our entire lives. Just as no time ‘elapses’ while we sleep (because time doesn’t exist), no time elapses during our lives. The moment of our birth is the same present moment as the moment of our death. Why then do we fear death? Because we believe, erroneously, that time is real, that it ‘passes’. There is in fact no beginning and no end to anything. There is only awareness expressing itself, Now.
So, just as I appreciate intellectually that there is no separate self, no mind, I can now appreciate that there is no time; it’s just a convenience we use to catalogue events, all of which occur Now.
3. ON AWAKENING, REWILDING, AND RETURNING TO OUR TRUE BEING
Most non-dualists say that ‘awakening’ is just the first step. Once we are able to realize experientially that the separate self, the mind, and time don’t really exist, that’s when the real work of becoming truly aware begins, as this realization gradually changes everything we think, do, and believe.
It changes our relationships (generally, for the better). It allows us to move past fears and see everything with a new astonishingly clearer lens, and with the equanimity I wrote about in my last article. It changes our priorities. It doesn’t make us emotionless (or thoughtless), or nihilistic, or indifferent to everything, or disinterested in doing anything. Those we love shouldn’t feel threatened that we’re going to lose interest in them, or not care about their ‘unaware’ feelings and experiences. Our love and joy grow to encompass everyone and everything we perceive, all that we are aware of.
For the first time, instead of being impatient and discouraged at my incapacity to achieve this realization, I am now absolutely certain that I will achieve it. I am on my way, and although I know that it is as simple as just opening myself to really see what I now intellectually appreciate, I know it’s a process that will take a little time to unfold (yes, the same little time that doesn’t exist).
I think some of the changes that this realization brings are of the type I wrote about in my last article about rewilding. I believe wild creatures, unburdened with an egoic mind, are able to perceive and live in the Now easily, except in brief moments when they are under great stress (until they ‘shake off’ the briefly-useful illusion of separateness again and return to being part of Now awareness). I believe they live mostly free of the illusion of the self, because unlike us they have no need for it and haven’t grown too smart for their own good. I believe they live an almost entirely need-free, want-free life of leisure and pleasure, because what better evolutionary formula for surviving and thriving could there be?
I wrote last about the ‘radical’ idea that what is natural is to live a life free from work, purpose, personal love, intentional action, conversation, abstract language and abstract thought, and it seems to me that the realization of the illusion of separate self and time would almost necessarily acknowledge this.
Without the belief in the separate self, responsibility, progress and the other tenets of individualized civilization culture, I think voluntarily spending our life in job slavery would be unlikely, we would feel no need for a ‘purpose’, the culturally-created scarcity of personal love (and everything else) would lose its hold, there would be no sense of urgency to converse in awkward human languages (even to persuade others of our new awareness), and we would be content mostly to just be and experience what is, rather than to do anything that didn’t have an immediate, local, compelling, urgent need to be done. There would be no attachment to this bankrupt and immiserating culture, its beliefs or its practices at all.
Awareness inevitably, I suspect, radicalizes us (takes us back to the roots of what it means to be) and rewilds us (liberates us from the domesticating yoke of an obviously nonsensical civilization).
4. ON HOW AWAKENING COULD CHANGE US
(A). LANGUAGE, AND PRIORITIES FOR ACTION
How do we use (or cease using) abstract languages when we awaken to an understanding of reality radically different from (or even incompatible with) the understanding of reality we have been brought up to believe? How do we use pronouns, for example, when we know there are no separate selves? How do we deal with statements, ideas and beliefs from friends, colleagues and loved ones that simply make no sense without belief in time and a separate self? How do we practically do things (like writing blog posts) and collaborate using language, when our fundamental sense of who we are and why we do things has radically shifted?
From what non-dualists have said, it would appear that we go on using language much the way we always did, except we use the words mainly to communicate with others who are still rooted in the illusions of time and separate self. (“Before enlightenment, cut wood and carry water. After enlightenment, cut wood and carry water”).
We speak their language(s) out of kindness and because we want to relate to and be understood by them, but instead of these languages being native to us, we now translate everything we understand into terms most others can understand and relate to. When we use pronouns they are now metaphors rather than statements about our reality. We take language less seriously and are more aware of its serious limitations. Arguably when we are unattached we can be even more empathetic with those suffering from the attachments, beliefs and pain we have been able to move past.
Much as if we were talking with friends suffering from hallucinations, we acknowledge and accept what others say, and look for ways to help them be at peace and do things that are practical and useful in the dominant culture. That’s not being patronizing or dishonest — it’s being pragmatic, realistic and uncritically accepting and loving. We don’t proselytize; we listen, appreciate, and support.
Most of us do what’s urgent, and rarely get around to things that are merely important. It’s possible that awareness will liberate us from much of the sense of urgency we used to have about doing things, and hence allow us to do things that are ‘really’ important.
(B). RELATIONSHIPS WITH OTHERS
My last essay tweaked several readers who said they couldn’t buy my argument that radical rewilding would mean giving up ‘personal love’ (the love of one ‘person’ for another). I think I was unclear about what I meant so I will try to explain this again.
If we accept that there is no real ‘self’ and that everything is an expression of awareness, then that would seem to suggest that ‘personal love’ is an oxymoron. So what do we mean when someone says they passionately love one other person (or even a few other people? Those in love imagine that they have an intimate and somewhat exclusive connection with the ‘other’ (or others). This has great evolutionary advantage: It bonds (addicts) the two intoxicated lovers, which may increase the likelihood of multiple healthy offspring, and makes them very protective of each other, which may increase their longevity to the same end.
It could be argued, then, that being in love, or in lust, is just a naturally-induced and addictive chemical sensation of profound connection, for evolutionary advantage. The same argument might hold that it’s pure illusion — remove the chemicals and the ‘other’ seems uninteresting or even ghastly, not what was imagined at all. Even the feeling of tenderness and affection that outlasts the euphoric initial cocktail of being in love, is still chemically induced, though it is different body chemicals produced in smaller, more long-lasting doses.
What if anything is ‘real’ in personal love? It occurs, though arguably less intensely (there is less violence exerted in its defence, and less jealousy) in wild creatures, whose egos and senses of self are arguably much less developed than those of humans. This suggests that this feeling of love (there is a growing consensus that such love is not ‘an’ emotion) is not tied to the perception of a separate self and doesn’t require a large brain capable of abstract thought.
My argument is that the thing that makes humans’ ‘personal love’ more intense and more jealous than the love of wild creatures for their partners and their tribe members is that we bring our sense of self into them. For wild creatures, their love is, I would guess, pure pleasure — nature’s chemicals do a bang-up job of making us all persistent, caring and passionate breeders so our species continues to exist.
Wild creatures’ love is only specific to partners at breeding (and in some cases offspring-raising) time, and then it re-expands out to their whole tribe and their whole world. (Biologists now mostly agree that the idea of wild creatures often ‘mating for life’ is an anthropocentric romantic fantasy.) In Sex at Dawn, the authors argue compellingly that humans are biologically designed (evolved) for promiscuity and that, even more in than other creatures, human love focused on a specific partner (or even a few specific partners) is unnatural.
For prehistoric humans, they argue, ‘love’ meant (a) that chemical rush that we feel, most of us I think if we’re honest, for any and all other people we find attractive, and (b) that enduring affection we feel for those whose company, for all kinds of reasons (e.g. they’re funny; they like the same things we do) we enjoy. In other words, love is taking pleasure in others’ company. Nothing personal. That doesn’t mean that a radically rewilded, awakened human is fickle in their affections. For most creatures, love lasts (why not, if it’s abundant — the more the better). It just isn’t personal, or limited. It’s when we bring our sense of self into relationships that anxiety, jealousy, insecurity and the desire to control creep into and poison it.
I hope that’s at least a bit clearer.
So how about our relationships with those we don’t particularly love, or even like? How does awakening affect our attitude and behaviour towards them? Kindness, compassion, joy in their joy, and equanimity (peaceful joyful acceptance) — the four sublime states — sum it up pretty well, I think. They replace the feelings of anger, impatience, intolerance, fear, pathos, and resentment that many of us feel, I’d say, for those they don’t know, trust, get along with or agree with.
I’m guessing this is one of the harder stages that one has to go through after awakening. So many entrenched intellectual (thoughts) and emotional triggers to unravel and move past!
(C). THE STUFF INSIDE: FEARS, SUFFERING, THOUGHTS ABOUT PAST AND FUTURE
And finally, there’s all that egoic stuff inside us; how does awakening affect our handling of our fears, pain, trauma, sorrow, grief, anger, anguish, inexhaustible and chronic anxieties, nostalgia and relived horrors of the past, dreams, hopes and dread for the future? These things don’t simply disappear when we realize the illusion of the separate self and the illusion of time.
This, I suspect, is the never-ending part of becoming ‘enlightened’ — learning to cope with all this stuff. It does us no use to say it’s not ‘real’. Chronic physical or emotional pain doesn’t cease just because we realize that it is being felt by the body through which awareness expresses itself, and that we are that awareness not that body.
And while we may realize that our fears, anxieties, sorrow, grief and anger are emotional reactions to stories we have invented about the non-existent past or future, that doesn’t make them go away. I suppose it takes a lifetime of practice after (not before) awakening to finally understand and let go of them.
It’s interesting imagining myself in this awakened state. Rather than making me frustrated or discouraged or impatient at not being in that state, I find it quite comforting. It all just makes sense. It’s going to be fun.
It’s just a matter of time, Now.